Wildfires Melt Glaciers From a Distance

Scientists have begun to trace a link between climate change, an increased number of wildfires and glacier melting.  Particles emitted by wildfires and then deposited on glaciers are thought to darken the ice’s surface, and may lead to more rapid melting.

Natalie Kehrwald, a geologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), is currently studying the levels of wildfire particles deposited on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. Kehrwald and her fellow USGS geologist, Shad O’Neel,  who is tracking the retreat of glaciers in the Juneau Icefield, are working together to document the contributions of wildfires to glacier melting.

Collecting ice cores on the Juneau Icefield (Source: Natalie Kehrwald).

“In the past two to three years there have been huge wildfires [in Alaska]… I am trying to see if there are aerosols being deposited on the Juneau ice field and if they are accelerating the melting,”  said Kehrwald in an interview with GlacierHub.

According to multiple sources, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the non-profit research and news organization Climate Central, rising Arctic temperatures are creating longer and more severe wildfire seasons, with larger and more frequent fires.  Kehrwald proposes that an increase in wildfires has led to a greater volume of aerosols, a mixture of carbon and other particles, deposited onto glaciers.  There may be a minor feedback as well. Since glaciers act as large mirrors and keep the planet cooler by reflecting solar energy back into space, the loss of glaciers could also accelerate the rise in temperaturse.

In early August, Kehrwald and O’Neel led a team of student researchers from the Juneau Icefield Training Program into the field, where they gathered ice cores.  They will later analyze these cores for wildfire indicators in a lab.  

Natalie Kehrwald’s team of Juneau Icefield Research Program students (Source: Natalie Kehrwald).

“We take samples from the highest, flattest parts of the glacier in specific locations that are impacted by air masses.  We drill down 7-9 meters, which date back about two to three years,” said Kehrwald, summarizing their trip.

The carbon deposits from wildfires can be grouped into a larger category called black carbon, which have been linked to rapid glacier melting.  Black carbon refers to carbon released from both biomass burning and fossil fuel emissions.  In order to determine whether the carbon on the Juneau Icefield is from wildfires, Kehrwald will look for a specific molecular marker in the ice.  

“It is a sugar called levoglucosan and it is only produced if you burn cellulose at a temperature of about 250 degrees Celsius,” said Kehrwald.  “So if you see high concentrations of that molecule you know the origin is biomass burning, which is generally wildfires but could be a big compilation of household fires.”

A team of Alaskan  firefighters marches down to meet the flames (Source: BLM Alaska Fire Service/Facebook).

Although the Alaskan wildfires occur predominantly in the boreal forest located in a drier region far north of the Juneau Icefield, smoke from wildfires have been known to travel great distances.  The phenomena of darkening glaciers due to particles from wildfires was well documented last year when large wildfires in British Columbia deposited particles on glaciers across the North American Arctic and as far as Greenland.

According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, three of the top ten largest Alaskan wildfires since 1940 occurred in the last decade.  In 2015, Alaskan wildfires burned over 5 million acres of land.  Alaska’s burnt acreage represented five-sixths of the national total land consumed by wildfires in that year, according to The Washington Post.  The acreage of wildfire burned land in 2015 is second only to the approximately 6.5 million acres burned in 2004.

A 2015 report, The Age of Alaskan Wildfires, produced by non-profit group Climate Central stated that large Arctic wildfires are no longer rare.  

Satellite image showing Alaskan wildfires on June 25, 2015. Actively burning areas are outlined in red. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner (Source: nasa.gov).

“We found the number and size of areas burnt by large wildfires [in Alaska] is on the rise since the 1950s,”  stated Todd Sanford, climate scientist at Climate Central.  “Looking at the length of the fire season in Alaska we found, like in the western US, the length of the season is increasing each year…. Wildfire seasons are over a month longer than they were in the 1950s.”

Additional research will further expand understanding of how much wildfires may affect glacier melting.

“In regards to the glaciers in southeast Alaska,” Kehrwald told GlacierHub “we don’t know if it [the reason for the rapid melting of the Juneau Icefield] is temperature only… or if it’s also due to imputes from outside components such as wildfires.”
Kehrwald and O’Neel plan to test their ice core samples in the lab and by later this year have a clearer view of how a greater number of wildfires due to rising temperatures can contribute to glacier melting.

Should Alberta Legally Protect Its Glaciers?

A recent article in the journal Appeal by Jennifer Cox of the University of Calgary discusses the possibility of legislation regimes for the roughly 700 glaciers in Alberta, Canada. She reviews existing laws and considers alternative forms which might protect these valuable, rapidly-shrinking ice bodies.

Murray Fraser Hall, University of Calgary Faculty of Law (source: LSAC)
Murray Fraser Hall, University of Calgary Faculty of Law (source: LSAC)

Cox argues that existing laws in Canada do not protect glaciers, which she describes as sui generis, or unique. She asserts that Alberta should consider drafting legislation devoted to them, and explores how other countries— like Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, and Switzerland— have legally protected their own glaciers.

Cox begins by mentioning the important status of glaciers. Glaciers provide many ecosystem services and also have touristic and economic value for sightseeing, as well as ecological and scientific value. However, climate change is the greatest threat to Alberta’s glaciers. Since glaciers retreat and their water storage capacity diminishes, problems related to the legal rights of water resources will occur. Moreover, melting glaciers could also lead to possible floods,which some researchers think could be a major problem for Alberta.

Considering that glaciers can provide so many functions and but also spur conflict or disaster, Cox recommends that legislation for glaciers should be created in Alberta and that lawmakers should consider both the pitfalls and successes of laws in other countries first.

Cox raises a slew of questions about glaciers and the law:

As glaciers retreat and their incredible water storage is used up, who gets priority to the water? What happens to the riparian rights downstream when the primary source disappears? Who can tourist companies and national parks sue when one of their main attractions disappear? What if precious minerals, such as gold or copper, are discovered underneath Alberta’s glaciers? Who has rights to glaciers? Is there a right to glaciers? Can glaciers be removed and sold? If so, who gets the pro ts?26 What happens to borders, provincial or international, when the glaciers that differentiate them melt? Who will be liable in the case of a GLOF?

Moraine Lake Alberta Canada(Credit: Flickr)
Moraine Lake, Alberta (Credit: Flickr)

In order to answer the questions above, the author tries to articulate the current situation and to give some recommendations for Alberta from a legal perspective.

The Canada Water Act, the Canada National Parks Act, Alberta’s Provincial Parks Act,and Canada’s other federal and provincial climate change laws do not provide useful guidance related to the legal status of glaciers. The provincial and federal parks acts do not give a layer of direct protection for glaciers within their boundaries, and climate change regulations focus mostly on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As for the Canada’s common law, water riparian rights are neither logically stated nor practically protected. Although international law could provide theoretical guidance, its principle is still legally inapplicable to the glaciers of Alberta. Thus, no legal regime on glaciers currently exists in Alberta.

Fort McMurray Wildfire in Alberta Canada Deemed Extreme(Credit: NASA)
Fort McMurray Wildfire in Alberta Canada Deemed Extreme (Credit: NASA)

“Alberta should look to create legislation that is aimed directly at glaciers,” Cox concludes. “Proactive legislation would protect this unique economic and environmental resource for Albertans and Canadians for decades to come.”

Meanwhile, wildfires continue to ravage Alberta and might take several months to extinguish. This unusually large set of wildfires reflects the influence of climate change, and points to the urgency of fighting climate change. As Cox shows, legal systems can be a crucial element in such fights.

Roundup: Raging Fires, Racing Bikes, Rushing Water

Elite Team Battling Growing Wildfire in Glacier National Park As Tourists Flee

St. Mary Lake Glacier
Photo Courtesy of Erin Conwell via AP

“A wildfire in Montana’s Glacier National Park chased hundreds of people from their campgrounds and cabins in the middle of peak tourist season. A management team that responds only to the nation’s highest-priority fire took command Thursday night. More than 200 firefighters backed by helicopters and fire engines planned to attack the blaze’s northeast flank, which was the biggest threat to a hotel and campground that was evacuated Wednesday, and to find a safe place to begin constructing a fire line, fire information officer Jennifer Costich said. The 4,000 acre fire started Tuesday, and officials moved quickly to evacuate hotels, campgrounds and homes, including people in the small community of St. Mary.”

Read more about Glacier National Park’s fire here.


Have You Seen This? Insane glacial bike race

“Welcome to Megavalance… a four-day event with over 1,400 participants from around the world who attempt to ride 18 miles down a glacier in France on mountain bikes. Riders go from Le Pic Blanc (10,827 feet) to Allemont (2,362 feet), slipping and sliding the whole way.”

Read more about the race here.


Central Asia Floods Reawaken Glacier Anxieties

Central Asia Glacial Floods
Photo courtesy of UN React, Eurasia Net

“Floods across Central Asia over this past week are highlighting the perils of failing to adopt robust water-management measures and put adequate early-warning systems in place. Tajikistan has been the worst hit, with abnormally high temperatures causing rapid snow and glacier melts. The country is 93 percent covered by high mountains, making it particularly vulnerable to landslides and flash floods. Dozens of homes have been destroyed and at least a dozen people killed.”

Read more here.

PhotoFriday: Wildfires Rage in Alaska

Unseasonable heat in Alaska combined with winds and low humidity have triggered major wildfire outbreaks in the Northern state. According to a status report from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, as of Wednesday, June 24, there were 278 active wildland fires state-wide. The Healy Lake Fires grew to 10,000 acres earlier this month, doubling in less than 24 hours. The Stetson Creek Fire started when lightning struck on the Kenai Peninsula. The fire had consumed about 400 acres last week.

This May was the hottest May on record in Alaska, according to data that goes back 91 years.  The immediate cause of the high temperatures can be attributed to the development of an El Niño event in the eastern Pacific, which can trigger extreme climate events around the world. On a longer timescale, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the national average over the last 50 years, the US Environmental Protection Agency found.

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“The number of large wildfires (larger than 1,000 acres) suddenly increased in the 1990s, and the 2000s saw nearly twice as many large wildfires as the 1950s and 60s,” according to Climate Central. This increase has been concurrent to rising temperatures. The U.S. National Climate Assessment reports that the area impacted by wildfires in Alaska will double by 2050, and triple by 2100 if emissions continue at present rates and warming continues.

The heat means trouble for Alaska’s glaciers, too. A new study from researchers at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks found that from 1994 to 2013, Alaskan glaciers have lost 75 gigatons (or 75 billion metric tons) of ice per year. That’s equivalent to half the total ice loss of Antarctica.

For regular updates on the wildfire status, visit: http://akfireinfo.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/AK.Forestry

To report a wildfire in Alaska call 1-800-237-3633

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com